“We may be small in number, but we are BIG in heart.” Those are Coach Kelly Gough’s words about her AGS Marathon Kids running club at Au Gres-Sims Schools, where she teaches Health, Physical Education and Social Studies. Au Gres, Michigan is located on the beautiful shores of Lake Huron, about an hour north of the city of Saginaw.
Community ties are strong in this small, rural city. Many children in the area come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and are eligible to receive free or reduced-priced meals at school. In 2017, when Coach Gough spotted a Marathon Kids ad in Health magazine, she instantly knew she wanted to start a running club at her school, so she applied and received a grant. “I was so incredibly grateful,” she says, “as this was an awesome way for all students who wanted to participate to be able to.”
The AGS Marathon Kids running club is now in its second season. An educator for the past 27 years, Coach Gough naturally incorporates community values into her running club. She also emphasizes the importance of determination, tenacity and grit to her students, a group of 40 runners who range in grade levels from 1st through 7th grades. One of Coach Gough’s top rules for her Marathon Kids runners: “Along with working hard and having fun, anytime you pass another runner on the track or the trail, you should always offer them a word of encouragement to help motivate them to reach their goal.”
RUNNING OUTDOORS IN THE FREEZING COLD
Running in sub-freezing weather is tough work for AGS students, after all. For this reason, staying motivated is paramount during the long, freezing-cold winter months. In late January, Au Gres schoolchildren had a full week off from school due to a blizzard that dumped 18 inches of snow, followed by temperatures that plunged to -40 degrees before the wind chill.
Coach Gough works hard to inspire her runners so they will never complain that “it’s too cold” or say, “We can’t run outside.” She believes in running alongside her students in order to help everyone stay positive and show the kids that they aren’t alone. Even when it’s incredibly cold out and their lungs are hurting with the effort, she wants her Marathon Kids runners to trust that they can do it. And once a month, there’s hot cocoa waiting as a post-run treat!
Tracking mileage and celebrating milestones are two more ways the AGS Marathon Kids keep their excitement high. In February, when they completed 52.4 miles (two full marathons) as a group, they were very excited to win a prize of cool green Nike laces. Coach Gough also keeps an active Twitter account showcasing her Marathon Kids’ progress and accomplishments, to make them feel like “superstars on the Walk of Fame.”
GETTING THE WHOLE COMMUNITY INVOLVED
Coach Gough likes to incorporate fun in the Marathon Kids routine by recruiting parent and grandparent volunteers to help out with running practices. “The volunteers bring such good energy and feedback to our practices,” says Coach Gough. “I just love hearing their stories about the impact our running club has on them, physically and emotionally.” The kids thrive on the positive interactions with adults, and they take a lot of pride in their hard work.
Community events, such as participation in local 5K races and annual Turkey Trots, are another big part of the AGS Marathon Kids’ success. In December 2018, the city of Au Gres welcomed the AGS Marathon Kids running club in sponsoring the city’s second-annual Jingle Bell Jog Fun Run — a family “Christmas in the Park” event that was a fun time for the whole community.
The event also served as a fundraiser to support the AGS Marathon Kids runners in paying their entry fees for an end-of-season 5K run that’s coming up on St. Patrick’s Day. The 5K is especially exciting for the group, as it will take place in a large city and the students will receive “real, live medals and runners’ shirts” when they cross the finish line.
RUNNING WITH A PURPOSE
Coach Gough believes in the power of running with a purpose. “I have a strong philosophy of giving back to the community and helping those in need,” she says. “In my Physical Education classes, I teach my students about doing things such as food drives for the local pantry or a mitten tree in the winter to provide others with warm outerwear.”
Last year, her MK running club ran in honor of a local teacher who had cancer. This year, Coach Gough says, “Our focus or cause came naturally and unplanned.” When a few families in the local school community fell on hard times, the Marathon Kids families stepped up, providing them with Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, gifts, decorations and more.
“It was only natural to want to help,” says Coach Gough, “and I knew, based on the amazing families I have the opportunity to work with through Marathon Kids, that I could count on them to want to as well. This experience has been so heartfelt, and has taught our runners about true kindness and selflessness.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR COACH GOUGH AND HER MARATHON KIDS CLUB?
In 2018, Coach Gough sustained an injury that left her facing six weeks of recovery at home. Being separated from the running club was challenging, but parent volunteers pitched in to keep the kids on track, and Coach Gough dug deep into the grit and determination that she has always strived to instill in her students.
Despite moments when she worried that she had let her students down and even that she might have to abandon the running club, Coach Gough worked hard to recover, and she rejoined her Marathon Kids runners when she was well enough to return. Now, she reports, “I cannot tell you how privileged I feel to be a part of Marathon Kids. It is truly an amazing time with my students. I love that our running club has become an extended family that always steps up in time of need, trouble or joy. We are there to celebrate with each other, and we are teaching each of these young athletes about so much more than just running.”
In mid-February, her extended MK running club family once again stepped up to help when Coach Gough suffered a slip-and-fall injury. She broke her leg and ankle, which required surgery to repair. Fortunately, she says, “Two very amazing parents are helping me every day via technology to ensure the Marathon Kids running club is still alive and well in my school. I am recovering at home and won’t be running alongside my athletes anytime soon, but part of the journey is ‘practice what you preach.’ I tell my students and runners that they are capable of doing anything they set their mind to, no matter what. I know I will run again, and I am staying positive for my runners, as they are now my inspiration.”
With such a positive attitude and supportive community, Coach Gough will surely recover quickly. She plans to participate in this summer’s Marathon Kids Leadership Academy, in order to make her running club stronger and better than ever. “I am so incredibly, over-the-top excited to see where this program goes in the future,” she says. “The sky is the limit.”